Without Susan Harmsworth, the spa and wellness industry arguably wouldn’t have become what it is today. Throughout her career – which has spanned almost five decades – she has founded and managed multiple successful wellness businesses, most notably ESPA, which Harmsworth sold in 2017, having grown the brand to include 700 spas in 60 countries, including ones within Mandarin Oriental, Gleneagles, Peninsula and Ritz Carlton hotels. It is no wonder then that almost 10 years ago she was made an MBE for services to the spa industry.

You might think, after all that, Harmsworth would have been ready to trade in her consultancy hat for a spa bathrobe of her own and enjoy a well-earned retirement. The reality is far from it.

“I was supposed to retire but the industry’s not letting me,” the 74-year-old laughs. “But also, I’m too driven because I think wellness is going to be so vital going forward. I decided I needed to do something to give back because I’ve been privileged to work in the industry for nearly 50 years.”

Today, she sits on the boards of the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) and Global Wellness Summit (GWS), as well as the advisory boards of Forbes and Amaala, a planned luxury wellness tourism destination in Saudi Arabia. Harmsworth is also working with owners to develop a new breed of wellness destination resorts that she says will challenge the hotel industry when they begin to come to fruition in 2022 and 2023.

There’s certainly no one better to speak to about spa and wellness trends in hospitality, what hoteliers should be looking out for in 2020 and where things are heading in the months and years to come. The past 12 months have seen record profits again in the spa and wellness space, as well as the continued growth of entire hotel brands centred on these concepts, from Chiva-Som in Thailand to Fivelements in Bali. According to the GWI, wellness tourism is growing more than twice as fast (6.5%) as tourism overall (3.2%), representing about one in six of all tourism dollars spent. And there’s no sign of that growth slowing. In 2017, global wellness travellers took 830 million wellness trips. By 2022, that number will hit 1.2 billion.

Harmsworth believes this is because we are really starting to realise the effects the past three or four decades have had on so many aspects of our lives.

“If you go back 30–40 years, we were eating food that was grown locally, seasonally and in very good soil. There were hardly any cars, very little technology and very few flights. The number of people living in cities – and on the planet – was nothing like it is today,” she explains.

“People are now beginning to recognise how much has changed, and wanting to take ownership of their own well-being and ongoing health. We’re seeing huge increases in mental health issues, anxiety, allergies and asthma, as well as a rise in type 2 diabetes and cancer. People are recognising now that the big thing is prevention and they want to be as healthy as possible for as long as they can.”

Nature’s not in it

This realisation, Harmsworth says, has led to a yearning for nature. “By 2040, 68% of the world population will be living in cities. The air is compromised in cities, and it’s very difficult to become grounded, and work with your body and the circadian rhythms of life when you’re in this constant high-alert adrenal-draining environment.”

She made a decision for herself to move to a rural area four years ago, which made a huge difference to her well-being. “I can go home from the frenetic life I still seem to lead and find peace.”

Within the hospitality industry, nature-focused concepts, which are further off the beaten track than ever, continue to pop up – from Sweden’s new Arctic Bath Hotel, a spa complex with cabins frozen into the water of the Lule River in Swedish Lapland, to Bill Bensley’s exclusive tented camp resort, Shinta Mani Wild in the Cambodian wilderness. There, Bensley gets guests to arrive via a zipline through the trees.

“All forms of bathing – from watsu to forest bathing – are also coming back,” Harmsworth continues. “People are going into nature and having transformational experiences – that is going to be a big trend. People need to calm their minds, and get thinking space and creative space.”

At the same time, there has also been a growth in the number of urban wellness resorts. For example: the exclusive Austrian alpine health resort Lanserhof has recently brought its detox programme to London; One & Only is launching One & Only Urban Resorts; and Fivelements, the Balinese ecowellness resort has just launched a wellness centre concept in Hong Kong.

“Many people find it very difficult to take the time to go to [the more remote resorts] – especially if they’ve got a family and they’ve only got two weeks’ holiday,” Harmsworth says.

She also believes guests are becoming more results-focused, a development that can be attributed to many things – whether that’s wanting more effective facials or physiological benefits from a massage rather than just relaxation. Some hoteliers are responding by bringing in qualified third-party specialists. At the same time, the hunt for spiritual enlightenment is more urgent than ever.

“About five years ago, the spiritual retreats started – yoga, meditation, breathwork and so on – and that’s not diminishing,” she adds. “I still believe and I’ve always believed that you cannot be well if all of you isn’t well – that means your mind, which is the cognitive piece and the meditation piece, your physical health and your spiritual health. To be whole as a person, you have to address all of it. If one part is out of kilter, it affects the rest. Today, people want a bit more – they want the spiritual piece but they also want to know that they are physically healthy too.”

“If I’m travelling and going to a five-star hotel – the food, the ability for me to sleep and the ability for me to carry on with my movement routine; those are the most important things.”

In practical terms, Harmsworth advises hotels to start with the basics: “If I’m travelling and going to a five-star hotel – the food, the ability for me to sleep and the ability for me to carry on with my movement routine; those are the three most important things.”

On the sleep front, some hotels are getting hyper personal, using circadian science to ensure guests are well rested, even after a long journey. For example, Six Senses uses the Timeshifter jet lag app and IHG is piloting the use of state-of-the-art circadian lighting technology.

Growth of wellness tourism from 2015 to 2017.

Meanwhile, when it comes to movement and exercise, Westin offers a ‘Run Like a Local’ programme designed to help guests maintain their exercise routine while on the road. It’s all part of its six pillars of wellness programme, which, the brand says, “allows guests to feel well, work well, move well, eat well, sleep well and play well while at a Westin property”.

It’s also becoming more and more important to cater to multi-generational travellers, Harmsworth stresses. “If you’d said to me 10 years ago that I’d be designing destination wellness resorts where we’d involve children, I’d have said no, wellness is a really adult thing,” she says. “Today, though, I think one of the things hotels need to be doing a lot better is proper wellness for children.”

Six Senses is setting a good example. The company’s new framework for kids programming – Grow With Six Senses – incorporates six dimensions of wellness into all activities for younger guests – social, environmental, physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. The activities entailed in this programme include cooking classes, yoga, treasure hunts and fitness challenges.

Finally, Harmsworth considers it important not to forget staff. “You’ve got to practice what you preach. This might mean morning meditation classes for staff, better food and accommodation and so on. Workplace wellness is becoming key.”

The resort of the future

Harmsworth’s current focus is advising owners on how to create the true destination wellness properties of the future. And she’s certainly putting the time in to get them right.

“We’re spending days and weeks asking big questions like ‘What is wellness?’, ‘What is wellbeing?’, ‘What is happiness?’, ‘What is fitness?’,” she continues. “But not only do you have to ask all of those questions, you have to arrive somewhere that you know is going to be financially viable.”

While she can’t give too much away, she says the future of wellness resorts is bringing together the clinical and the spiritual. “We’ve recognised that the spiritual side of things is terribly important,” she notes. “But at the same time, we want the diagnostics to prove which route we should go. I think it will all come together.”

In the meantime, it’s crucial for hoteliers to accept that mental health issues and anxiety have become part and parcel of modern life and that most people staying in their properties are struggling with them.

“The industry is finally accepting that this is the case,” Harmsworth believes. “Historically, hotels liked putting things in boxes and labelling them but they have to move away from that, and have their staff understand that these are the issues people have in their day to day lives.” Wellness, it seems, is set for a long stay.